The Suspense is Killing Me

[June 2008]Three minutes from now, right about when you’re almost finished reading this essay, a bomb is going to go off. You don’t know this, but everyone else does. Sure, I could have just set the bomb off without telling anyone, but that would have caused only a brief moment of shock. This way, everyone else is going to watch those red LEDs counting down from 3:00 to 2:00 to 1:00 to 0:30 and, ultimately, to 0:01. Everyone will be screaming at you to stop reading and do something about the damned bomb. Three minutes chock full of tension and suspense and reader involvement.

It’s not a new idea—Alfred Hitchcock wrote about it nearly forty years ago. He also concluded by saying that the bomb must not go off or “the audience will be as mad as hell with us, they’ll be disgusted . . . An audience needs that relief after you’ve put them through the ringer.”

Perhaps readers of this essay can think of situations where the bomb should go off, but that’s not my point. Since my writing has turned more in the direction of crime/suspense lately, I’ve been thinking about the ways we create suspense and tension.

(Are you keeping an eye on that timer? It’s getting closer to 0:00 all the time!)

Recently, I watched the second season of the Showtime series Dexter. The first episode is brilliant. In case you’re unfamiliar with the show the main character, Dexter Morgan, is a serial killer—but he’s also a blood splatter expert with the Miami Police Department. His adoptive father, a cop, recognized Dexter’s personality disorder at an early age and gave him guidance and an outlet for his urges: kill only murderers who have escaped punishment. This moral code allows the audience to root for him, albeit in a perverse way.

At the beginning of the season, Dexter’s life has pretty much returned to normal after the turmoil he endured with the ice truck killer. However, by the end of the first hour, everything has fallen apart. He’s facing not just one crisis but three or four. He’s become homicidally impotent—he fails to execute one of his intended victims. A second victim escapes and might be able to identify him. At the same time, his girlfriend believes (correctly) that he had something to do with her abusive ex-husband’s return to prison. To deflect her suspicions, he confesses to being a drug addict, which means he has to agree to attend Narc-Anon meetings. Finally, the place where he disposes of his bodies has been discovered and dozens of his victims are bound for the forensics lab. His colleagues and friends are talking about him constantly—without realizing it.

For the rest of the season he operates like one of those guys who spin plates atop poles. While he attends to one crisis, the others all start to wobble, so he has to leave what he’s doing to handle something else. In the best (for us as viewers—not for Dexter) scenarios, there’s a stopwatch attached to a particular crisis. If he doesn’t do X in Y minutes, he’s screwed.

(How’s that clock doing, by the way? Don’t forget about the bomb!)

The looming deadline is our friend when it comes to writing suspense, though it’s missing from many classic mysteries, or used ineffectively. If Hercules Poirot doesn’t solve the mystery before the Orient Express is freed from the avalanche, someone else might die. That’s too vague to create tension and there’s little genuine danger (beyond the risk of professional embarrassment) to the main characters.

On the other hand, if Dexter doesn’t break into a police lab by 7 a.m. tomorrow, a surveillance video will reveal him on the deck of his boat wiping away evidence that he used it to transport bodies. That’s bad enough, but he has to handle several other equally important crises between now and then. 7:00 keeps looming without him getting any closer to the lab.

A few years ago, I read a “literary thriller.” While the novel was certainly well written and the characterization was rich and detailed, the book lacked key elements to make it compelling. The main character was hired to search a warehouse full of crates of ancient books for a particular volume, but the only deadline to his task was the fact that he was supposed to leave for London in two weeks to take on a new job. If it became an issue, he could have made a few phone calls and rearranged his schedule, I suppose. Not exactly a critical deadline. Also, there didn’t seem to be serious consequences if he didn’t find the book. He wasn’t going to die, nor was anyone else that readers cared about. There was more to it than that, of course, but once the other trappings were stripped away, it boiled down to: No time clock, no risk—no suspense. That meant readers weren’t urging the protagonist to action.

(By the way, what does the timer say now? Shouldn’t you be doing something about it?)

I embarked on an interesting challenge a few months ago—writing a thriller short story. At first glance, it didn’t seem like a problem, but it proved harder than I thought it would be. In 5000 words or less, I had to set up a challenge, get readers sufficiently invested in the characters to care about what happened to them, set the story in motion and arrive at a satisfying solution. All in fewer than five times as many words as are in this essay.

I soon discovered why so many thrillers suffer from thin characterization—pacing requirements don’t allow much room for character exploration. I spent so much time creating crises, getting the protagonist past them and then hitting him with the next problem before he had a chance to recover that I didn’t have the luxury for anything else. Readers learn about him by the way he reacted to and solved challenges, but I couldn’t really delve into his past. I had to ignore my natural tendency to have him reflect about his situation at length because that would have slowed the story down—and that clock was tick tick ticking away, with people were determined to kill him to prevent him from achieving his goal.

The next time you find yourself reading or watching something that accelerates your pulse, makes you want to turn the pages faster, has you shouting at the screen or the page

(Bomb! There’s a bomb! It’s about to go off!)

take a step back afterward and scrutinize what the author did to achieve this effect.

Oh, and by the way, if you pull out the red wire, the timer will stop and the bomb will be defused.

Did I mention that I’m color blind?

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